“Got Gunk?”

The Radiator Specialty Company promotes it as a line of automotive maintenance products. More precisely, the discipline of philosophy states it applies to any indivisible whole. And though a common by-product of virtually every culture, now it’s even surfaced as…are you ready…an art form.

Modern Arts Midtown is featuring this mysterious substance in a variety of colors and formats in its current exhibit, Fresh Gunk, new work by Omaha artist Colin C. Smith. The exhibition, on view through Sept. 22, is essentially comprised of a medium of pigmented resin (gunk) that Smith has used to create 2D and 3D work of a duplicitous nature. This ingenuity of both process and medium lends the entire installation a curious and transforming nature.

Entering the left door of the gallery one is greeted by gunk on wheels, as well as gunk on the wall. Which is the painting, and which is sculpture? Paradoxically, they could each be both as they share similar qualities of line, density, texture, form and even palette.

Using the scale and proportion of object to floor, or object to wall, Smith “turns the table” so to speak on the viewer’s preconception of what a painting or sculpture might be. Gunk on wheels is a thick concentric layering of pigmented resin in a pan on the floor. There is no stable base for the piece. It can be moved readily and easily anywhere in the space.

The horizontal blue density of “Echo,” interspersed with two lines of hot pink, becomes an elliptical figure on the rectangular wall. The pigmented textural surface of “Echo” is not pictorial illusion, but rather optical interruption on the smoothly painted freestanding wall.

Furthering the lack of easy identification and interpretation while spiking curiosity is the deliberate absence of obvious theme or representation. Even the tone of Fresh Gunk is deceptive.

“It’s not paint on canvas,” Smith said. “It’s not sentimental, angry, or romantic. It’s a spatial issue using color temperature,” he said. “This whole thing is a material process and a kind of serious playfulness. A lot of it comes from the “dada” influence of Father Lee Lubbers, my first art professor at Creighton University.”

The entire exhibition is one of experimentation. The playfulness of discovery in the artist’s process delights the senses. It also tickles the imagination. While Smith’s attitude leads the viewer, it is his intelligence which guides. The alternating wide yellow and red stripes of “Stagger” appear to settle into a warm horizontal band of vibratory color. The long skinny ellipse, centered on the wall at eye level, is not flat but bumpy. On closer inspection, it is not quickly done but meticulously executed.

“The psychology of perception is at work here,” MAM director Larry Roots said. “It is the difference between insight, and recognition. It becomes an experience for the viewer that the artist has channeled.”

Each wall contains a variation of color, surface and reference. The titles are singular words, each possessing a possibility of different meanings, such as “Blitz”, “Fuse”, or “Tutu”.  The bright colors in “Tutu” for example reminded Smith of fabric, or the Miles Davis tune. “It’s also two numbers put together,” he said.

 “Ripple” is a deep crimson surface, interspersed with cooler colors in the middle of its vertical banding. The curved corners question the notion of the traditional picture plane. The horizontal rectangular format serves as a counterpoint for the circular “Omega” series on two opposing walls. “The titles are meant to be ambiguous,” Smith said. “’Ripple’ could be a noun or a verb. It could even be a cheap wine,” he chuckled.

Does that mean “Shag”, a blue rectangle with curved corners, refers to a rug? Perhaps not as far as Smith is concerned. “I don’t make abstract paintings,” he said. “I’m not abstracting from anything.” “Blush” is an ice pink diamond shape with green horizontal strips. The texture, shape, and color combine to create an effect of harmony and balance. The title might refer to embarrassment, the color of a flower, or the cloudiness of a slow drying paint surface. The title might also refer only to itself. It may simply be an identifying label. These artificial objects, in this gallery setting, integrate all of their material intention to create a unique aesthetic experience.

This experience shifts from room to room. The freestanding, silver colored grouping “Pylon” is a traditionally referenced sculptural piece. Standing on the floor, it inhabits the viewing space directly. If it were taller, with variations in circumference, its resonance with the viewer’s body might have more impact. The variable sizes of the sculptural group “Gorbs” has more success doing this.

Fresh Gunk is an exhibition providing provocative responses for Smith’s thoughtful questions: “What is figure-ground? “, “What are painting properties?”, “What can you take out?”, and “What is the body’s relationship to the object?” Other artists of similar sensibility include Peter Fox, whose process-driven, historically referenced work delights the senses, and Omar Chacon, whose “Bacanales” Series pulse with eye popping color. In keeping with the playfulness theme, there is a bin with any number of smaller multi-colored gunk balls. For ten bucks a pop, these could be the perfect stocking stuffer.

 “What’s a person to make of all this?” Colin Smith asked. “Make an investment in looking at it.” Fresh Gunk is an opportunity to participate in one artist’s commitment to a specific orientation and understanding of art’s capacity to enliven, enrich, and engage. It’s an exhibition not to be missed.

Fresh Gunk, new work by Omaha artist Colin C. Smith continues through September 22, 2012 at Modern Arts Midtown, 3615 Dodge Street, Tue-Sat, 11 am – 6 pm, (402) 502-8737, modernartsmidtown.com.

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